The history of Clark County did not begin with the arrival of European settlers during the 1800s. Native tribes such as the Chinook, Cowlitz and Klickitat inhabited the area for thousands of years, developing a culture that continues to influence the region.
Knowledge of those tribes and an understanding of their connection to modern Vancouver is an essential part of Washington’s history. Because of that, requirements mandated by the Legislature in 2015 play a role in a comprehensive education for local students.
But as detailed in a recent report from Crosscut, a Seattle-based investigative journalism outlet, schools and tribes throughout the state are having difficulty implementing the curriculum. Lawmakers passed the requirements while leaving it to individual districts and tribes in their area to figure out how to make them work.
“I didn’t really expect a lot of resources because it’s education and because it’s around tribal work,” Marjorie James, the Tulalip Tribes’ curriculum and engagement manager, told Crosscut. “We’re used to rubbing two nickels together.”
The broader issue involves the Legislature. Improving the study of Native Americans and their cultures, leaders and histories is a worthy endeavor. Nobody can profess to know Washington without knowing about its natives and the roles they continue to play in our communities.
In 2005, lawmakers agreed to “encourage” school districts to teach about Native Americans, and the office of the state superintendent partnered with tribes to create a curriculum called “Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State.” A decade later, the coursework became required as part of the history and government curriculum.
The problem: Funding is left to individual districts and tribes. As Crosscut reports: “Nearly seven years later, however, it is unlikely any of the Since Time Immemorial curriculum has been fully implemented across all grade levels in any district in Washington, according to representatives from the state superintendent’s office, the Office of Native Education and Indigenous leaders in education.”
Attempts to support and develop equity and inclusion often amount to little more than virtue signaling. Trying to do the right thing requires more than passing a bill and patting yourself on the back for a job well done; enforcement and funding might be required, depending on the situation.
If lawmakers simply “encourage” districts to include education about Native Americans, that leads to disparate efforts among those districts. If lawmakers require districts to include such education but do not provide adequate funding and guidance, that also leads to disparate efforts.
Education about Washington’s native tribes is, indeed, important to understanding our state’s history and its present. And engaging local tribes in the development and implementation of that education is an appropriate step. “Those relationships with tribal nations are essential to grow all of our instructional work and to grow opportunities for students to learn directly with contemporary tribal people who are their neighbors,” said Dr. Laura Lynn, program supervisor at the state’s Office of Native Education.
At a time when the teaching of American history is a source of intense debate, the issues involved are likely to be misconstrued. A focus on local native peoples is not an effort to rewrite history, but rather an acknowledgment that history should be viewed from a variety of perspectives.
Schools throughout the state should do a better job of recognizing that.